Airlines Should Fly Planes—Not Hunt Terrorists

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Let's give the airlines a break. Just this once.

An important new book, Unsafe at Any Altitude, highlights a number of glaring holes in aviation security that were supposed to have been plugged after the 9/11 attacks and the creation of the Transportation Security Administration. Several were condensed into a recent exposé on 60 Minutes: a shoddy government "no-fly list" that includes thousands of people who shouldn't be on there and excludes many who should; continued turf battles between the CIA, FBI, and other government agencies that undercut aviation security; and chronic security breaches behind the scenes at the nation's airports.

The book's authors, Susan and Joseph Trento, lay many of these presumed failures at the feet of government bureaucrats, for all the usual reasons involving politics and self-preservation. But there's also criticism of the airlines for trying to cut costs related to security (along with everything else) and for trying to offload responsibility for passenger safety to the government, airport authorities, or private contractors.

I haven't seen a good list of precisely what needs to be done to maximize the safety of our airports and airplanes. Even Unsafe at Any Altitude doesn't offer clear answers, one of the book's shortcomings. But here's a coherent starting point: An industry that chronically loses money and faces some of the most cutthroat competition anywhere in the world should not be tasked as a first, last, or even marginal line of defense against terrorists.

The airline industry is a thoroughly studied microcosm of what happens, for better and worse, in an open market with ready capital and low barriers to entry: New competitors appear all the time, prices fall, and profit margins get shredded. Since the U.S. airlines were deregulated in 1978, the industry has lost money overall. Especially lately. Cumulative losses since 2000 reached $40 billion earlier this year, and only now do a few of the carriers seem to be starting to get healthy again.

The airlines, in other words, are among the last organizations we should expect to bear the huge financial burden of public security. Airlines get virtually no government subsidies. Strong competition in most markets drives down travel costs for consumers, which is precisely what we want in an open, laissez-faire economy, right? As most travelers know, airlines have been so desperate to save money that they're cutting back on pillows and pretzels. Yet fares are still cheap.

Wall Street has encouraged and applauded that kind of cost-cutting and whatever else it takes for airlines to get back into the black. Yet there's still a presumption that the airlines should pony up part of the money it takes to make sure terrorists can't exploit a seam in the system and slip a bomb onto a beverage cart. So which are airlines supposed to be: lean, globally competitive corporations or appendages of the Transportation Security Administration?

When it was formed in 2002, the TSA was supposed to undertake most of the aviation security duties once relegated to airlines and airports. In some ways, that has worked. Yet the Trentos' book highlights many worrisome holes in the system, not to mention an infuriating pass-the-buck government mind-set. Security expert Michael Pilgrim told the authors that one explanation for poor handling of the no-fly list "is to defer responsibility and to divert blame from the government to the carriers. ... If something goes wrong and someone gets on a flight and then causes a terrorist incident, the airlines can be blamed."

This should be inexcusable. Companies that must cut costs to the bone to remain competitive cannot simultaneously undertake millions in additional security costs, "just in case." If you go out of business, "just in case" doesn't mean anything.

There are numerous security measures the government ought to be studying, if not requiring, rather than leaving it up to carriers and airport officials to decide. Examples: double "man trap" doors that can secure a cockpit more effectively than a single, hardened door; better screening of thousands of low-paid, behind-the-scenes workers at airports; and standardized passenger lists that make it easier and faster to compare data about who's getting on an airplane.

It will cost money. Who should pay? We all should, through taxes or fees placed directly on air travel. And there should be tougher auditing of the way the TSA spends that money, to make sure it's buying security and not pork.

On most days, I can fly round trip between New York and Los Angeles for less than $400. What if that cost $50 more, nonnegotiable, and I knew the premium was buying an added measure of safety for everybody in the skies, not just those on the flush airlines? It would still be a bargain–especially if it helped get the airlines out of one business they shouldn't be in.